Hard-Working Ivy

The Holly and the Ivy,

When they are both full grown,

Of all the trees that are in the wood,

The Holly bears the crown.

Holly is much coveted festive greenery but what about ivy, or Hedera to give it the botanical name? It makes up the trio of festive plants, the other being mistletoe, and frankly it’s usually seen as a bit of a poor relation, misunderstood and mostly unloved.

Yet ivy is a great workhorse in the garden. It’s evergreen, it attracts wildlife and is excellent on those north-facing walls and fences where nothing else seems to grow. It’s not just a dark green cloak either; there are many cultivars with different leaf shapes and variegated foliage. The variegated varieties are great in those areas that catch just a little sunlight during part of the day as they suddenly seem to illuminate a usually dull spot.

Ivy is great for disguising an ugly wall, a bare fence, or an old tree stump. It’s a reliable and self-clinging climber if you choose the right variety and remember to prune it correctly. The young climbing stems are slender and flexible with small aerial roots that fix the shoot to a surface. Adult stems are thicker, self-supporting and do not have roots. Unlike mistletoe ivy isn’t parasitic so won’t harm trees but be careful about letting it grow on the walls of your house as it will damage weak mortar and pebbledash. If growing on a property it needs to be clipped back in spring and summer, so it doesn’t do any damage to structure underneath. Don’t let it get into gutters because it will clog them then infiltrate under tiles or slates.

Ivy is excellent ground cover. It will scramble over areas of poor soil and brighten the ground between shrubs during the dark winter months. Persian ivy, Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’, is lovely because of its large, yellow-edged leaves. Hedera canariensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’ is also good. Its red stems and large leaves with splashes of yellow looks rather splendid. If you need an area covered quickly try Hedera Hibernica, which is a vigorous native ivy.

Hedera helix is the other native ivy and this one has numerous cultivars including Goldheart, which has yellow-centred leaves, Green Ripple, with frilly edged leaves and ‘Buttercup’ which is bright yellow.

If you love to support the wildlife in your garden, then ivy is a terrific plant. During autumn and early winter adult ivies produce small greenish-yellow flowers. These are especially rich in nectar so attract bees, butterflies, hoverflies, and other insects, providing them with a place to overwinter. Birds like thrushes, blackbirds and robins enjoy the purple black berries which ripen from late winter to mid-spring, providing a much-needed winter food source.

I hope I’ve made a good case for growing ivy in your garden. Holly might bear the crown, but I reckon ivy deserves a tiara at the very least!

Happy gardening and Merry Christmas,

Rachael Leverton